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© 2004 by Max Bennett

Ellen Meister

She's living every fledgling novelist's dream: snagging a publisher that is actually going to pay her. Ellen Meister's book deal with Morrow/Avon was finalized this past November, and a target publication date of early 2006 is set for George Clooney and Other Secret Longings of the Applewood PTA.

But, her story neither starts nor ends here. Like any good climax, there's been some quality time invested beforehand in hopes of a languidly spent and satisfying denouement. I caught up with this busy mom/wife/novelist/hockey goalie (OK, I made that last one up) over some e-mails.

Steven Hansen: After graduating college, you got a job in advertising. Were you writing ad copy? Or what were you doing? What do you remember most about those days?

Ellen Meister: My first job was actually not in advertising, but in the marketing end of publishing. I worked for a small medical book publisher and I think my title was "Promotion Associate." The business operated on such a small budget that I didn't even have my own garbage can. Honest. I had to improvise by taping an oversized envelope to the side of my desk and throwing my trash in there. My boss was so impressed with my ingenuity that she went out and bought me my very own trash can. It wasn't quite enough to entice me to stay, however, and I soon left to be an assistant to a literary agent. That was a terrible job for me as my secretarial skills weren't nearly good enough for the workload, and I left after a few months.

SH: Was the fact that you gravitated toward jobs in and around the publishing field a compromise (as it is for so many writers) between an unsure future of writing and the getting a 'real job' real world reality?

EM: Sadly, I wasn't writing any fiction at all in those days. So it wasn't a matter of getting a day job to make ends meet while I spent my evenings in literary pursuits. I was attracted to publishing and advertising simply because I liked words and books. And when I finally started getting copywriting jobs I was thrilled. I enjoyed that work. I was good at it, first of all, and loved that I did something for a living that ended with a tangible thing I had actually created and could put into a portfolio.

SH: So you weren't one of those people who knew practically out of the cradle they would be "A Writer." What turned you into one? Writing fiction is a long process if one is to master it. What kept you plugging away through what I affectionately call 'the early years of drivel?'

EM: Ha! I actually WAS one of those people who always knew she wanted to be a writer. I'm just a terrible procrastinator. Writing was always something I was going to do later, when I had the time. For years I called myself a writer and didn't write a single sentence of fiction (unless you count advertising copy). Then one day I looked at my life and thought, if not now, when? What the hell am I waiting for? Perhaps it was my own version of a mid-life crisis. But at any rate, I had three small kids at the time of this great epiphany, and virtually no time to pursue this dream. But I had the bug then, and knew there was a way to make it work. I simply had to. So I started getting up at 5 a.m. and writing.

Sometimes I regret that I waited so long to follow my dreams. But on the other hand, I think I would have been a terrible writer if I had started younger. I'm a late bloomer and I needed the maturity.

SH: But you were successful in other fields, copywriting, advertising, marketing, etc. Why did you 'have to' write?

EM: I often think of writers as having a lot in common with exhibitionists. People who take their clothes off in public want to be LOOKED at. They crave that attention. Notice me and make me feel alive! Don't we feel the same way about being read? We're baring as much of ourselves to the world as we can. And we want APPROVAL for it.

So I guess I "have to" write because I'm too shy to take my clothes off in public.

SH: Well, you shouldn't be. I've seen your bio photo. Va-va-voom!

Anyhow. You've recently garnered that ever elusive 'approval' in the form of a big, fat book contract for your novel George Clooney and Other Secret Longings of the Applewood PTA. What was the genesis of this book and who made you (or why did you) change the title? (It used to be George Clooney is Coming to Applewood.)

EM: Thank you, Steve! I think I'll keep my clothes on anyway.

As far as the genesis of the book, the idea came shortly after I made the decision that I was going to get back to writing, no matter what. I had walked into a PTA meeting, smiling and nodding at all the other moms, feeling like I had this big secret. No one there knew I wanted to write. No one even knew I had an inner life. All they saw was this PTA face. Then I got to wondering if all the women in the room were thinking more or less the same thing. That's when I knew I needed to write about these women, and to explore the depth of their lives.

The title of the book is still in flux. When I was first marketing it to agents and editors, PTA was a dirty word. Who the hell wanted to read about PTA women? Then something happened. ABC made a sexy, funny television show about housewives and it became a hit. Suddenly it's okay to write about these women. So perhaps it'll be in the title, I don't know yet. My agent and editor seem to think it's a cool idea.

SH: Of course, no one reading this interview watches TV because they are all snooty literary elites, and they have no idea what you're talking about. "Housewives, herm?" However, you say you decided on writing the novel shortly after dedicating yourself to writing. Where did all those short stories you have published on the Web and in print come from? In between chapters of the novel you'd just pop one off or what?

EM: Remember how I said I was a terrible procrastinator? A lot of the short stories were an excuse to put the novel aside for a bit. But I'm not complaining. Writing short stories lets me flex different muscles, and ultimately makes me a better novel writer. Kind of like a baseball player taking time out to play basketball or hockey. (Good heavens. Did I just use a sports analogy?) Also, the road to book publishing is so very long that I needed the gratification of getting short stories published along the way.

SH: Like Michael Jordan playing baseball? Hey. That was a disaster! Bad sports analogies aside, the ordeal you went through to get the novel published reads like Homer's Odyssey, and you are Odysseus. How'd you get through it? And, in discussing the rewrites that the novel underwent during that process, you talk about applying 'band-aids' where 'surgery' was needed. Can you be a bit more specific on what this means?

EM: How did I get though it? Well, I'm not sure I did, as I had at least one bona fide panic attack somewhere in the middle of the ordeal. It's not something I recommend.

As far as the rewrite, I was lucky enough to land some brilliant agents. (Yes, that's agents, plural. I'm jointly repped by two people at the same agency.) They're as smart as they are ambitious, and they recognized, among other things, that the novel's "through line" needed to be stronger. That is, the central plot got lost in places where the subplots took on a life of their own. I agreed with them, but thought I could make the changes without doing major surgery on my chapters, which was an intimidating proposition since it's a big complicated novel, with three protagonists and lots of subplots. So I stuck band-aids all over the damned thing, and my agents kept coming back to me and saying I hadn't pushed it far enough. Finally I said there was nothing else I could do and so they submitted it.

Alas, the first editor who saw it rejected it for the very problem my agents had been complaining about. At that point I got off my ass and did the surgery required. And guess what? Once I got into it, it wasn't nearly as hard as I thought it was going to be. And of course, I'm happy with the finished product. The lesson learned is that it's a bloody process and I should have just done the surgery to begin with.

SH: Dammit, since you broached the subject a couple questions ago, I can't help but ask the question: Are all PTA women naughty 'desperate housewives'? What's wrong with men these days that they can't satisfy their women? And are all these questions and more answered in your book?

EM: Didn't your wife just have a baby? Are you worried what will happen when the kid enters kindergarten and your wife joins the PTA?

You should be, because yes, PTA women are terribly, terribly naughty. Something about those plant sale fund raisers makes us lose all control.

I can't speak for all men and whether or not they're satisfying their women, but one of my more sexually-charged characters is married to a man who was left half-paralyzed and completely impotent from a stroke. To make matters worse, the brain damage he sustained left him sexually uninhibited and unaware of his inability to perform. Hence, he has a tendency to ask strange women to fuck him. His wife copes by having an affair with the school superintendent.

Did I mention that there's sex in the book?

SH: Sex? What a novel selling point! Of course you'd put the poor GUY through the torture of wanting it all the time, but not being able to 'perform' as it were. Hey. Is that some kind of metaphor for all of us Neanderthals? You are naughty.

On a serious note, how has having three children and a knuckle-dragging husband to take care of affected your writing? Has it been a help or hindrance or combination of both?

EM: I don't think I could have written about sex and kids if I didn't HAVE sex and kids. So as far as this novel is concerned, it's definitely been a help.

Honestly, I'm not the type who needs to be miserable and suffer for her art. I'm at my best when I'm happy. So having a loving, non-knuckle-dragging husband and three kids who make me laugh until I'm begging for oxygen is a good thing.

My schedule is tough, of course, but I'll have plenty of time to rest when I'm dead.

Steve Hansen

His Nibs - Steven Hansen

When he's not preparing for, and/or conducting interviews for Inkpot, Steven Hansen is a contributing editor at smallspiralnotebook.com, proofreads for FRiGG Magazine and tries to create at least one good short story every quarter century. He's published in The Paumanok Review, Samsara Quarterly, FRiGG Magazine and one is forthcoming in The Danforth Review in March. He does other stuff, too. His wife Pam just gave birth to a boy named Sam.

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